Enterprise innovators: Thinking big, acting small

December 12, 2014



Four ways to encourage innovation in your enterprise to effectively compete in the digital age.

For today’s enterprise executive, the threat of digital disruption is increasingly becoming a fact of life. Today, enterprises have cheap and easy access to computing power, unprecedented amounts of freely available data and an abundance of open source technologies. This means anyone with smarts and dedication can emerge as a disruptor to unseat established giants with a well-executed big idea that catches fire.

To prepare for these would-be challengers, corporations need to be “tomorrow ready.” Enterprises should make emerging technologies an integral part of their strategic business plans. If enterprises don’t stay out in front of digital disruptors, they risk forfeiting their relevancy in the marketplace. In order to do this most effectively, corporations should cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation inside their walled gardens. In fact, many forward-thinking enterprises are looking outside their organizations and to the startup world for inspiration.

For some, traditional enterprise descriptors like big, slow and risk adverse are becoming less accurate depictions of their cultures. Instead, words that you typically associate with disruptors like nimble, cool and fast-to-market are being used to describe parts of some of biggest companies in the world.

Imagine innovation culture as a spectrum ranging from “cumbersome” to “cool.” To mirror startups, enterprises are moving away from the cumbersome side and more to the middle by establishing innovation and prototyping labs to generate and explore disruptive ideas. Some companies are tackling this challenge from the outside-in by working with external partners to jumpstart their innovation function. Others are taking a bottom-up approach by supporting grass roots and crowdsourcing campaigns to embed innovation into the heart of the organization.

But it’s not enough to run an employee idea generation campaign or create a spinoff innovation group. Enterprises that want to inspire lasting cultural change and act more like a startup may need to change some foundational principles of how they operate. Namely, they need to do more to empower their employees on a number of different fronts.

Give employees the freedom to fail when experimenting with new business models and emerging technologies

This freedom is paramount. In addition, enterprises need to foster conditions that enable teams to quickly bring a product to market when they have a potentially game changing idea. At the same time, executives need to understand that innovation is an investment that may require a longer runway than traditional business initiatives.

Designate a senior executive as the champion of the innovation initiative

This champion can help a more creative culture succeed in taking root. His or her mission should be to protect the incubation group by providing cover from others who might demand short-term ROI and immediate results, act as an impartial gatekeeper for the innovation process so that the best ideas are promoted to the next level, and preventing the unnecessary meetings and group think that can cause the process to stagnate.

Resist executing innovation ideas from the top down

Those same leaders need to instead allow a more creative culture to flourish by stepping back and letting the workforce become involved in the innovation process.  Moreover, executives involved with innovation need to encourage hands-on experimentation, and not just paper design exercises.  This rapid prototyping and incremental experimentation, which is rooted in real experience, should be favored over gut reactions from senior leadership.

The stakes of the innovation game are becoming more serious. Making a mistake today is much more costly given the rapid pace of change and innovation in markets.  Today’s technology amplifies the positive impacts of making the right decisions and revs up the ramifications of making the wrong move. To succeed in this new marketplace, you need to get it right, fast, and that means getting your hands dirty.

Leading by example

Like many things in today’s corporate sphere, there is a lot of hype around innovation and “acting small.” But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. So are there companies out there who have successfully integrated these startup principles into their everyday operations? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

For example, there are beverage manufacturers that have embraced the startup ethos by launching innovations like plant-based packaging and “smart” beverage dispensers. And consumer product companies that encourage employees to spend 15 percent of their time to explore new ideas and provide company resources to pursue the concepts that show promise. There are also hotel brands that have transformed their properties into living laboratories where local managers are given the freedom to test new ideas and solicit feedback directly from guests.

Corporations that are serious about staying in the game should look to startups for inspiration and start thinking big, but acting small.


Jeff Burlin contributed to this post.



Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email